Hundreds of AAP members urge Congress to protect children from gun violence
DevinMiller, Washington Correspondent
This week, more than 350 pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists, pediatric
surgical specialists and pediatric trainees descended on Capitol Hill to urge their
federal legislators to protect children from gun violence. It was the largest group
of AAP members to storm the halls of Congress in Academy history.
This year, the annual Legislative Conference was combined with a fly-in that brought
committee, council, section and chapter leaders from across the country to the nation’s
capital. First-time advocates stood alongside seasoned experts, representing all 50
states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
“At first, it was daunting to think about advocating on this national stage,” said
Rishi Mistry, M.S.N., A.R.N.P., C.P.N.P.-P.C., of Yakima, Wash., who was advocating
on Capitol Hill for the first time. “But, I learned that we already have the tools,
and while we may have different stories or backgrounds, we’re all speaking with the
same child health message.”
The conference was chaired by Lynda M. Young, M.D., FAAP, chair of the AAP Committee
on Federal Government Affairs, and J. Gary Wheeler, M.D., M.P.S., FAAP, chair of the
AAP Committee on State Government Affairs. Members of both committees served as faculty
for the conference.
Child health advocates with varying levels of expertise and at all places in their
careers joined together to learn about what it means to be an effective advocate and
to speak with a unified voice.
A critical moment to speak out
While the dates for the nearly three-day conference are set far in advance, it fortuitously
took place at a critical moment during the gun reform debate. The Academy recognized
this and acted strategically.
Mere weeks earlier, AAP members rallied in Washington, D.C., and in their own cities
to speak out against gun violence and to stand with the students who had sparked a
Many pediatricians wrote op-eds and letters to the editor and shared messages on social
media. The Academy also announced a new Gun Safety and Injury Prevention Research
Initiative as a next phase of its advocacy work.
More than 50 AAP members recorded videos asserting their commitment to keeping children
safe. The Academy created a compilation that is its most-watched video, and its views skyrocketed when it was picked up by social news outlet NowThis News
during the conference.
As with any advocacy work, there was an undeniable need to sustain this energy and
keep gun reform top-of-mind for leaders at all levels of government; the Legislative
Conference was a key opportunity to help make that possible.
Learning from the experts
Legislative Conference participants attended informational workshops on timely child
health issues as well as interactive skills-building sessions.
They also heard from several child health policy experts, including Admiral Brett
Giroir, M.D., assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services and the highest-ranking pediatrician at the agency, and Marielena Hincapié,
J.D., executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
For the third year in a row, the conference featured a pediatric subspecialty track
with workshops focused on the interests of pediatric medical subspecialists and surgical
specialists. This year’s track was the largest ever with about 65 participants. In
addition, almost 80 conference participants were medical students, residents or fellowship
The jam-packed agenda set the stage for the days to follow, ensuring that even first-time
advocates were up to speed on the latest child health policy priorities.
More than 130 AAP leaders joined the Legislative Conference participants on the second
day of the conference, which focused almost entirely on gun violence prevention and
preparation for their congressional visits.
Rows and rows of AAP members listened to gun policy experts who addressed the current
political landscape and the important role of the pediatrician voice. Attendees learned
how they could use their expertise to describe why gun violence is a public health
threat to children. Later, participants divided into state groups to prepare for their
meetings and review their messages.
Attendees urged their members of Congress to do the following:
provide $50 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public health
research into firearm safety and injury prevention;
support a minimum purchase age of 21 for semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity
support a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.
Delivering and amplifying the message
On the final day of the conference, attendees took to Capitol Hill where they heard
from Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
AAP CEO/Executive Vice President Karen Remley, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H., FAAP, moderated
the inspiring session.
The members of Congress shared their own stories of gun violence, emphasized the need
for legislators to work across the aisle to find solutions and highlighted the important
role of the pediatrician voice. Following the remarks, the attendees were off to their
Participants visited more than 270 congressional offices, and some were able to meet
with federal legislators themselves. The advocates outlined their main messages, and
many shared first-hand experiences of how gun violence impacts their patients and
Diana Fertsch, M.D., FAAP, president of the AAP Maryland Chapter, said she has always
known the importance of stories when it comes to advocacy but recognized it more than
ever this time.
“You just never know what is going to move somebody,” she said.
Deepa Mokshagundam, M.D., FAAP, who has now been to the Legislative Conference three
times, was one of 11 attendees who visited with the Kentucky congressional delegation.
“Our group was made up of a mix of residents, practicing pediatricians and AAP leaders
who all connected on the same issue — protecting children from gun violence. It was
energizing and inspiring,” she said.
In fact, one Kentucky group member, Cynthia D. Downard, M.D., FAAP, who represented
the AAP Section on Surgery, was Dr. Mokshagundam’s attending while she was a medical
In addition to the efforts in Washington, AAP members across the country joined in,
calling their members of Congress, engaging on social media and further amplifying
the Academy’s messages.
The media also took notice — NBC News online, local affiliate TV stations and Politico
all covered the Academy’s day on Capitol Hill and approach to gun violence prevention
Continuing the journey
“As pediatricians, advocacy is in our DNA,” AAP President Colleen A. Kraft, M.D.,
M.B.A., FAAP, said at the beginning of the conference.
That message was echoed repeatedly throughout the conference, along with the phrase
“Advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint.” When it comes to protecting children from
gun violence, that phrase rings especially true.
Looking ahead, the Academy will work to ensure this new class of advocates continues
to have opportunities to engage and encourage them to take what they have learned
and inspire others to act.